Magazine article American Cinematographer

Reflections on a Marnage

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Reflections on a Marnage

Article excerpt

In the 1970s-set romantic drama By the Sea, a despondent, retired dancer named Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt) and her writer'sblock-afflicted novelist husband, Roland (Brad Pitt), retreat to a remote, sun-blasted Mediterranean hotel while he seeks inspiration. Their marriage in tatters, and divided by a mysterious trauma, the pair discover a strange sense of unity in a shared fascination with the attractive, vivacious newlyweds occupying an adjoining room (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud).

Jolie Pitt also wrote and directed the feature, and in seeking a visual collaborator, she reached out to cinematographer Christian Berger, AAC, BVK. She had discovered the Austrian cinematographer's work through watching the video A River of Light on YouTube; Berger, in turn, was immediately attracted to her script, which arrived with no writer or director's name attached. "That was a bit of a mystery at the time," he remembers with a laugh, "but I was immediately taken with this story of interesting people and very human issues. That's what always draws me to a project."

Envisioning a style reminiscent of classic 70s European cinema for the film, Jolie Pitt "was incredibly well-prepared and focused," says Berger. "Angelina and Brad wanted to make a non-commercial film. It was an opportunity for all of us to experiment and explore as artists - to create something delicate and special."

In a document she prepared for the film's cast and crew, Jolie Pitt notes, "There is a freedom in not making a commercial film. You can be bolder and experiment. It is emotionally more challenging and creative. As an artist you want to be able to try things, and to avoid safe choices sometimes."

Berger suggested Jolie Pitt shoot By the Sea in 2.39:1 widescreen, in part to take advantage of the story's coastal settings, horizons and landscapes. Berger elected to use Alexa XT Plus cameras, recording in ArriRaw to internal Codex XR Capture Drives, paired with Arri/Zeiss Master Primes plus an Arri/Fujinon Alura 45250mm (T2.6) zoom.

The cinematographer has used Arri Alexa models on many of his past projects. "I was initially drawn to the camera because I could transfer my long experience with film cameras, and the image quality of the Alexa is also quite pleasing," he says.

For By the Sea, Berger says he chose not to work at higher ISO settings than the standard 800 ASA, because he can sense the electronic "amplification of the image." He also feels one of the greatest limitations of digital cine cameras is their lack of lower-sensitivity settings. "I would switch to 400 for bright daylight, but that still meant using thick ND filters. What is the point of the incredible quality of lenses we have today if we are forced to do that? Here the film negative still has its advantages."

For the film's interiors, though, the Alexa's higher sensitivity facilitated the relatively low-light, naturalistic approach Berger employs via his Cine Reflect Lighting System, which grew out of his painterly observations about the behavior of natural light. "In the natural world, all light comes from a single source - the sun - which generates a multitude of reflections, creating all the complex textures, tones and colors we see," says Berger, whose father was a painter.

Frustrated with the equipment of the time, Berger began to experiment with what would become the CRLS while shooting director Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (AC May '02), refined it in their follow-up collaboration Caché {AC Jan. '06), then continued its evolution while filming Haneke's The White Ribbon (AC Jan '10), for which Berger won an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award and earned an Academy Award nomination, among other honors.

The CRLS system comprises an economical number of lamps - 1.2K HMI CRLS parallel beams and CRLS-adapted Dedolights - and a multitude of customdesigned, high-tech reflectors of various sizes and shapes, with textured and colored surfaces. …

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